The “O” Space

As I have been creating and compiling my final project for Open Educational Resources, the question of copyright has come up several times before we have actually gotten to the subject in our course readings.

I’m not unfamiliar with questions of copyright because part of my work is in educational publishing. In that professional space, permissions is a unique function for textbook publishers who wish to use others’ material in their books or to republish, for example, a storybook for children put out by a trade publisher. For instance, currently I’m wrapping up a book for K–8 teachers on writing research, a resource guide that reprints article excerpts from a number of research studies on children’s writing development, teaching strategies shown to work, writing and technology, and so on. Each has to be permissioned from its originating source, whether an academic journal or a book. Luckily in my role as compiler and editor, I hand off the permissioning function to an outside freelancer who specializes in this area.

I say “luckily” because I find the whole thing sorta boring to me, for the same reason I didn’t follow the other English majors from Washington University to law school after we graduated.

But thinking about copyright, fair use, and all that in the context of OERs is more complicated and thus more interesting. When you publish an OER, the “O” says it all: you have opened up your thoughts and skills to a very wide audience that will do all sorts of things with them you could not have imagined. Unlike a traditional academic publishing model, where there is a sort of weird secrecy about what you’re working on until you actually publish something or present it at a conference, publishing in the “O” space is immediately public. And no matter what, you have absolutely no control over what people do with your content. Put all the licensing options you want on it, it is still electronic and on the Web and by definition is thus easily replicable. Contrasted with a book, which you could only remix and reuse if you retyped the whole thing or photocopied/scanned it, bits and bytes are really easy to reproduce. With CC-BY and other restrictions, unless someone gets caught reusing materials, the originator is left pretty much relying on the goodwill of others, hoping that they honor her wishes as to how “open” the material is. On the other hand, outright stealing is easy to find if you look for it.

A few years ago, I had the experience of catching a plagiarist who was trying to pass off part of a short reader as her own work. The reader was one of the small, paper books typically accompanying large published reading programs for textbook publishers of early grade materials. As I was reading the manuscript, I had that funny feeling seasoned writing teachers get when something about a student’s work just doesn’t feel quite right: you are reading along, and you realize that the voice you had gotten used to somehow…shifted as suddenly the kid writing in simple sentences becomes almost wordy and complex. The little book was about the solar system, and so I typed directly into Google (with surrounding quotation marks) a couple of the sentences that struck me as different from the rest of the book. And lo and behold, I arrived at the PBS website to find several paragraphs of the “original” manuscript.

(As an aside…stealing words from PBS? Like stealing wine from a cathedral: sinful.)

Likewise, if someone used your work on the Web, it maybe pretty easy to find if you have some suspicion it’s out there. But what if they used your work in another context? It would be impossible to attend every lecture, watch every YouTube video, or visit every classroom that might be using your materials. It seems to me that if you publish Internet materials, you have already entered the O space, whether you define your materials as available for remix or reuse or not. It’s a tricky space to be in. In my final OER project I mostly link to other materials, many of which are copyrighted, rather than try to embed them or rework them in some way. To do this is the easy way to acknowledge the creation of others as well as to demonstrate (potentially) how to use them in a context that I am creating, much like academic papers cite sources of other ideas and conclusions.

Integrating OERs

Right now, I’m not teaching courses, but my final project for Open Educational Resources at the University of Manitoba will also be something that I will use for a series of training workshops I’ve been asked to set up. Thus I’ve already been thinking about integrating my aggregation of OERs within the context of 2-hour workshops over a series of several weeks, but our readings this week help me organize my thoughts a bit:

Our text describes eight steps to OER integrating OER in teaching and learning. 

  1. Assess the validity and reliability of the OER.
  2. Determine placement within the curriculum, if not already done. Note that some OER integration may be abandoned at this point if the OER relates poorly to the rest of the curriculum.
  3. Check for license compatibility. (See License Incompatibility in Licensing for more details).
  4. Eliminate extraneous content within the OER (assuming the license permits derivatives).
  5. Identify areas of localization (see Adapt OER).
  6. Remix with other educational materials, if applicable (see Adapt OER).
  7. Determine the logistics of using the OER within the lesson. For example, you may need to print handouts for learners. In other cases special software may be needed.
  8. Devise a method of evaluation or whether the currently planned evaluation needs adjustment (see Evaluation for more details).

What do these steps mean to you and your context? What additional step would you include? Blog on!

Because I am verbose and think too much (see all prior posts), I can’t hope to address all eight of these points, but they have helped me ponder a few things. These steps are for embedding an existing OER into a class or a course; in my case, I am creating an OER for a particular training I will deliver.

Cross-platform issues should be pretty easy to tackle–I’m using DokuWiki (here’s my first steps), and it is all text-based for ease of movement between devices. It renders perfectly when I access it on my Droid and, except for any videos I may include, the materials should be easy to download and print, if necessary, or store offline. I’ve just started learning and using this tool, so one thing I need to do is figure out whether there is an easy way to include, say, a button that allows a learner to save a particular file. I think the issue a learner would have, though, is that I try to fit the content onto one screen-sized “page” so there is not too much scrolling. That would mean more numerous but smaller files. I’ve seen wiki-based resources that do have a lot of scrolling, so I will need to figure out what my balance is between ease of reading on screen and ease of saving offline. I will have to investigate whether these DokuWiki text files could be “bundled” for download into subject groupings.

The target audience for this OER is very specific at the moment: I’ve been asked to create a writing curriculum for researchers who already have to write reports as part of their job, but reports that get disseminated to clients, partners, and the general public (in many cases). Their positions in this organization require the skills that they learned in graduate school (regarding data analysis and so forth) but also require them to communicate their findings to a wider audience than just their sociology professors. Newer associates, especially, have trouble with overuse of passive language and with burying the lead of their data “story.” They sometimes use phrases like “variables include student name…,” which mean very little to the public audience they are trying to reach. I have some mandates from the executive director that I must include, so there is an outside evaluator looking at these materials, too. Thus this OER is quite localized, which may or may not make it useful to a wider audience. However, the materials I want to incorporate may serve anyone who has to write public reports about what they do for a living.

I’m hoping that with the help of plug-ins in the DokuWiki software I may be able to incorporate some writing and revision interactive opportunities into the OER. That may or may not work, and I have a backup plan of Google Docs just in case. But I think what would be interesting is that learner engagement and interaction both inside and outside the system. I am thinking that we will do some writing in the workshops that may be incorporated into the wiki. Likewise, I will encourage them to go to the wiki and add/update/question things—that’s the beauty of wikis, after all.

In this project, there’s a tricky balance between a detailed academic approach (that is, in your writing, you need to be quite accurate about the data you are reporting) and a marketing/public relations/journalism approach (meaning that you want to make your prose accessible because you are hoping to enlighten/inform your audience about a situation in the community, for example). That means that in assessing materials to aggregate, I will have to pay attention not only to the quality of other materials I find but also to their approach and tone. A “how to” paper for an aggressive marketing campaign is not appropriate to include in my OER, for instance. These folks aren’t writing to sell anything; they’re writing to increase the knowledge of the community. Thus a few resources may be journalism sources, too.